Going to Sochi? Pack shorts and skis
The Sochi Olympics are a year away and the weather may be the biggest hurdle to overcome for Russia to claim a success story. The sun shines over the ski stadium during the FIS Cross-Country World Cup in Sochi, Russia, on Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Igor Yakunin
The Sochi Olympics are a year away and already there are worries about Circassian Muslim unrest, transportation headaches and even earthquakes.
But the weather may be the biggest hurdle to overcome for Russia to claim a success story.
If you thought the 2010 Vancouver Games had issues, just wait.
"In Canada, if somebody said 'Pick the least likely place for a Winter Games,' I would have picked Vancouver and, in Russia, I would have picked Sochi," says Environment Canada's senior climatologist David Phillips.
"I think we think we can fool Mother Nature sometimes."
Sochi was Joseph Stalin's cottage retreat back in the day, where he had his favourite "dacha" or summer house, a bit of a misnomer since it's as big as some modest resort hotels. You can still take a tour.
Think of it as Russia's Florida, festooned with palm trees and located on the northeastern coast of the Black Sea, just a little north of Turkey and northeast of Greece. The climate is classified as subtropical.
Phillips looked at data both for Sochi and the ski resort of Krasnaya Polyana and compared them with Vancouver and Whistler.
The city will be the site of the "coastal cluster" as organizers have dubbed it for arena-based sports while the "mountain cluster" will host skiing, snowboarding and bobsledding events. Each will have its own Olympic village.
"In Sochi you can enjoy a warm southern sea as well as high, snow-covered mountains," organizers boast.
It can snow in Sochi proper but it's not exactly a regular occurrence, as average daytime temperatures, Phillips says, are around the 9 C range in February. The record though is about 24.
That's even warmer than Vancouver, which has an average daytime temperature of 8 in February, has topped 18 and had more than its share of weather-related problems at the last Winter Olympics.
A short drive away from Sochi are the Caucasus Mountains, some of the highest in Europe, where the new ski resort of Krasnaya Polyana has been built for these Games.
Winter temperatures there are lower than they are in Sochi itself but, overall, Phillips found Sochi and Krasnaya Polyana are both warmer on average than their Canadian counterparts.
The extremes are also more extreme on the Russian mountain slope in February, with a record high of 22 and a low of -34, compared with 14 and -24 in Whistler, where the Pacific Ocean has a moderating influence.
And while it's hard to compare snowfalls — most countries just measure precipitation with Canada one of the few that measures snow — Whistler gets more than twice the precipitation in February as its Russian counterpart.
"Whistler has much more potential for snow," says Phillips.
But he's also sure Russia will pull out all the stops, and describes it as one of the most active countries in the world in terms of trying to manipulate the weather.
"I'm sure they can make it happen," he said. "They'll be seeding clouds and doing everything possible to make it into a winter wonderland."
Sochi planners, for example, drawing on a chunk of the massive budget for these Games, are stockpiling snow this winter on mountain ice sheets for use next year.
They tested the plan in December, when World Cup ski jumping events were held in temperatures 10 degrees or more above freezing. They dumped 4,600 cubic metres of snow on the ski jump.
"It wasn't ideal," said Curtis Lyon, the high-performance director of Ski Jumping Canada.
"The first day was fine, it was just warm. The second day was raining and the third day was really nice temperatures, about -3 to -5.
"There were no delays in the competition, everything went very smoothly. I think the landing hill could have been in better shape the first day. It was pretty soft and rough and there were a lot of crashes in training and qualifying."
But he expects things to be better in February, usually a colder month.
Lyon doesn't know why the competition was held so early in the season and he has heard that it may have been to try out the area's warm-weather capability. The other option is there weren't later dates available.
"I've heard both."
Problems with the weather are nothing new at the Winter Olympics. The second Winter Games in 1928 in St. Moritz opened with a blizzard then had to cope with a melt.
Contrary to what Russian Olympic chief Dmitry Chernyshenko has suggested, Sochi isn't even the first subtropical location for a Winter Olympics.
Nagano, Japan, is also classified as "humid subtropical," although located on the northern fringe, and hosted the Games in 1998. Not surprisingly, perhaps, those Games saw heavy rain and fog interfere with events.
Trying to predict the weather a year ahead of time is impossible, says Phillips. This month, so far, it looks like Sochi is pretty well sticking to average temperatures.
But Phillips says with the climate generally getting warmer, the challenge for Olympic officials isn't going to diminish.
"The fact is that we know the world is warmer. The one season that is different now is the winter. It's not just something that is Canadian, it's global."
He says perhaps officials should start being a little more careful about where they hold the Games, if they want to minimize weather-related issues.
"Maybe the next round they might look at giving weather a little more weight," he suggests.
"Maybe there has to be an independent body that assesses the weather conditions."